For no particular reason I thought it might be fun to tell you things about birthdays in Germany. Neat, huh?
Starting with basic vocabulary the German word for birthday is Geburtstag.
Geburt = birth
Tag = day
Sometimes otherwise completely sane adults ((citation needed)) people insist on saying Purzeltag trying to be adorable.
It’s supposedly phonetically close enough to the actual word, and purzeln is a verb best translated as to tumble. Maybe it’s due to the circumstances of their birth and maybe they fell on the head in the process. No idea. Happy tumbleday, I guess!
Another word sometimes used in the same fashion is Schlüpftag from the verb schlüpfen.
It’s what we call the process of young reptiles, amphibians, birds and platypus breaking out of their eggs. So, happy hatching day?
Anyway, the German expression ein Ei legen (to lay an egg) can also be a slang expression for dropping some timber. Uh, dropping the kids off at the pool. Dammit, to poop! So I wonder what the people wishing Alles Gute zum Schlüpftag are hinting at.
Congratulations! In Germany, the usual thing to tell someone is one of the following three:
Herzlichen Glückwunsch – Congratulations
Alles Gute – All the good/Good things/all the best
Alles Liebe – there’s no good literal translation, it’s (in that context) a general expression of fondness and the wish only nice things happen to someone
followed by zum Geburtstag! – for your birthday!
Everybody knowing the song and the expression, you wont be crucified if you just tell a German Happy birthday! But as you probably know it’s the little things that count, and going the extra mile and being able to say something nice to someone in their native language will only raise you in their estimation.
As for a congratulary serenade, on most birthdays in Germany people will sing Happy birthday in English.
The song also has German lyrics, though. And French!
Happy birthday to you! turns into
Zum Geburtstag viel Glück! meaning For your birthday much joy.*
The French version hammers one of those two to the melody:
Joyeux anniversaire (joyful anniversary/birthday
or in Canada
Bonne fête à toi (Good party/celebration/festivities to you)
*Glück can mean a number of things: luck, fortune, happiness, serendipity, bliss…
There are a number of older German birthday songs, but Happy birthday to you has pretty much displaced those for most purposes.
German birthday traditions are pretty much the same as in most of the western hemisphere, I guess.
There’s often a party, there’s usually a cake, gifts and especially for kids there’s a number of candles on the cake. The number of candles equals the age of the birthdayee ((I just invented that word. Neat, huh?)) and they’ll have to blow them out in one go so they can make a wish on it. No telling!
In school or office environment it’s often a tradition that whoever has a birthday brings cake or maybe some other snacks for the rest of the department or team. It’s just something nice to lighten up they daily routine. Or you might go to a bar with a couple of people and buy the first round, whatever you feel like.
Now for a few pecularities of German birthday traditions. While we often have our birthday parties on the eve of the day itself, if it’s on a weekend or in my case on a public holiday ((oops. October 3rd. No, not Mean Girls. German Unity Day)), it is considered bad luck to wish a German a happy birthday before the day itself.
In Northern Germany there’s a special custom for 30th birthdays of singles.
Male singles are expected to sweep the stairs in front of the town hall.
Female singles are expected to polish doorknobs. The German term for the latter is Klinken putzen is also a colloquial term for cold calling potential customers or going from door to door begging, selling insurances, etc.
In both cases, because friends are mean, sometimes they will make a spectacle of it. They’ll dump a ton of confetti on the stairs. They’ll give you a toothbrush to polish the doorknobs covered in filth and condiments. You’ll be dressed up comically. With any luck it won’t be a public event but doorknobs mounted on a board at your party. Or the stairs at home, not at city hall.
The traditionally only way to get out of this is to be freed by a member of the opposite sex. With a kiss.
I hope you enjoyed my little birthday lesson. I’ll take the opportunity at the end to thank my British friend Emilee who shanghaied a couple of of other UK-based friends into signing this lovely birthday card for me. Can you spot the one who spent a few years in Germany?